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The pathway to antibiotic-free pig production

The use of antibiotics in livestock production continues to be a regular topic of public debate. Denmark produces 32 million pigs per year and its effort to ensure a cost-efficient pig production with minimal use of antibiotics is regarded as exemplary by many countries.

Indeed, in a report in 2016, the EU commission highlighted the measures that the Danish meat industry and the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration have taken to limit antibiotic usage, concluding that the various measures “could serve as an illustration of potential good practices to other Member States”.

The DANMAP report for 2015 (the Danish programme for the surveillance of antimicrobial consumption in bacteria from animals, food and humans) highlighted that Danish pig producers reduced the overall use of antibiotics by 5% compared to the previous year and that the overall consumption of antimicrobials for pigs has decreased consistently since 2009.

Denmark has been actively addressing antibiotic usage in pig production for the past 22 years. In 1994, all sales of drugs by veterinarians were banned. Six years later, Vetstat was launched, a fully transparent system that monitors the veterinary use of drugs for production animals. 2010 saw the launch of the Yellow Card system, which operates on three levels: yellow card, increased supervision and red card. The system has proved effective in targeting the highest consumers of antibiotics in pig production. In the same year, the Danish pig industry introduced a voluntary phasing out of cephalosporins, which is in addition to the phasing out of flouroquinolones some years earlier. In 2014, the industry announced that it would aim at a 50% reduction in the use of tetracyclins and last year, there was general support for a reduction in the use of colistin.

In 2015, and responding to Danish consumer concerns regarding antibiotic resistance in humans, Danish Crown set up an antibiotic-free trial production – from birth to slaughter - at two farms on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea.

At the time, one of the producers, Karsten Westh, commented:

“Nobody should be under any illusions that it’s easy raising pigs in this way. We need to work significantly more hours and production is not cheap…”
In 2016, the concept was refined and extended to farms in Jutland, and at the Herning Pig Congress last autumn, producers Stine Mikkelsen and Nicolai Weber gave a presentation on their experiences of antibiotic-free pig production. They concluded that in order to rear pigs without antibiotics, the herd needed to have a reasonable health status and have a high weaning weight. Equally important was a high level of hygiene, the right team, the right owners and the right advisers.

With increasing interest also from consumers in the US where antibiotic usage is high, 23 farms supplying to Danish Crown are now involved in the scheme, with more than 100 farms on the waiting list.

Last year, a number of retailers in Denmark started selling pork reared without the use of antibiotics, but at a significant premium. In providing consumer choice, the challenge is also to ensure that shoppers also understand that all pigs slaughtered in Denmark do not contain any antibiotic residue.